Let’s begin with a story.
I write speculative fiction, and have read the genre since I was a young sprog. There was an era in sci-fi when time-travel stories set around Biblical events could sell. Not anymore. Too heavy-handed. Too on-the-nose.
But it surprised me, as a child, to learn indirectly from such stories that the narrative around the most famous person in Western history was simply missing all report from the ages of 12 and 30. 12 and 30! The years in which adolescence and young adulthood make fools of us all! How on Earth could anyone be considered beyond reproach without knowing the sort of messes they made during that critical time?
I would be a young teen when I read The Last Temptation of Christ and learn of conspiracy texts like The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Books like Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord series and Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ were written later still.
But as a small child fascinated by sci-fi, I first wondered to myself… what if? What if we went back in time with a camera, and we found the man who would later be known as Christ? And what if we followed him as a teen and young adult, recording him doing all the ploddingly human things that humans do? What if we recorded, say, the hypothesized journey to India, where some suggest his moral philosophy found its roots? Or gathered visual proof that he bedded women? Maybe even had a wife?
I remember trying to puzzle out what impact such evidence would have if the cameraman returned. Would the whole world immediately realize the folly of the Christian faith? The moral smallness of one of the Western world’s most famous tales?
No, of course not–because even if such footage became public, spin would follow in a heartbeat: Fervent proclamations of fakery. Experts and armchair critics dissecting minute details to confirm or deny the footage’s veracity. Church figures railing against the unholy use of time-travel technology and expounding upon the trickery of Satan. Scientists and philosophers educating the public in time-travel paradoxes, and charitably observing that the footage probably came from another possible timeline, another multiverse, and thus needn’t have any direct bearing on our own.
…And then in time all would settle down, albeit with new ideological schisms. Some theologians might even delight in the footage, and develop new doctrine–some progressive, some Draconian–based on The Gospel of Stuart (the Cameraman). Whole new sects would pop up, defiantly celebrating Christ the married man, the man who descended, yea, even unto into carnal relations with women!, on his path to saving humankind. In some orders, men would be encouraged to study his bedroom technique, while outside the church, mockery would ensue, with atheists joking about going off to “save humanity” that very evening, and every other evening, for as long as it might take, with however many women it might take, In the name of the Father, the Son, and his Holy Unit… Amen! Others still would go about their business utterly denying or–better yet–emphatically ignoring the video. Some might decide upon a dignified retreat from the modern world, in the same way that the Amish more or less declined to use technology developed after a certain date. Meanwhile, some would become so obsessed with the video and its creator–both clearly signs of the end-times!–that they’d make it a personal mission to destroy both, and anyone they deemed compromised by its teachings.
…Suffice it to say, I had an active and well-read imagination as a child.
But more importantly, the more I tried to reason my way through this thought experiment, and to find at its close a scenario in which hard video evidence could prove or disprove Christ-the-godhead once and for all… the more I realized that collective human knowledge is less about fact and more about how fact is spun.
And good grief, was that ever discouraging–for wherever did such a reality leave us, we humans who wanted to build the best possible world with the best possible evidence?
How could we ever hope to disrupt even our most dangerous cultural mythologies, when they all had such resilience built in?
The Normalizing Effect of Commentary
(Yes, even this commentary.)
It is a privilege to be part of the Patheos community, and to discuss humanist practice with like-minded folks in the Nonreligious Channel in particular. But as our essays emerge in response to horrific world events (the U.S. and Brazil currently dominating my field of vision), I’m reminded of the painful downside to articulating any specific points of view.
Now, let me be clear before I proceed: Just because a practice has downsides does not mean we should stop the practice entirely.
But it does behoove us to remember those downsides, and to catch ourselves before we play into the worst of them.
And unfortunately, one downside to posting with passion and sincerity about contemporary horrors is that, in doing so, we take up a subject-position in a game of political “spin”. The same is true, sadly, for our reading practice. We read one vehemently expressed opinion about a critical social issue… and then we go looking for other perspectives. Some supporting the original. Some as counterpoints to the original.
But isn’t that logical of us? Isn’t it reasonable to want to get a sense of the lay of the land? To see where people in positions of power stand on the same issue? And sure, okay, maybe it also gives us a rush, this throwing ourselves headlong into a feeling of outrage or alarm or incredulity. But it’s not like direct action’s always a possibility, right?
In 1964, back when philosophical discussions apparently involved a steady diet of alcohol and cigarettes, political theorist Hannah Arendt described on German TV the role of intellectual discourse in paving the way for genocide. The whole interview in which she made this observation merits viewing, but its embedded English subtitles compel me to reproduce the salient parts below. As Arendt observes in 1964,
Today people often think German Jews were shocked in 1933 due to the fact that Hitler seized power. As far as I and my generation are concerned I can say that is a strange misunderstanding. Naturally, Hitler’s rise to power was terrible. But it was political, not personal. For goodness’ sake, we didn’t need Hitler’s rise to power to know the Nazis were our enemies. Anyone who was not a complete fool had known that for at least 4 years. We also knew a large number of Germans were behind him. That could not shock or surprise us in 1933. …
Firstly, it became a personal fate when one emigrated. Secondly, friends co-ordinated or to put it in other words they got in line. The personal problem did not lie in what our enemies did. But in what our friends did. In the wave of co-ordination, which was voluntary then, or at least not yet under the pressure of terror, it was as if a vacuum formed around one. I lived in an intellectual milieu. But I also knew other people. Among intellectuals co-ordination was the rule. Not among the others. I never forgot that. … Dominated by that idea, I left Germany … Never again! I’ll never be involved with intellectual matters again. I want nothing more to do with intellectuals …
I still think it belongs to the essence of being an intellectual that one fabricates ideas about everything. Nobody ever blamed somebody for being co-ordinated, because they had a family to take care of. The worst thing was some people believed in Hitler. For a short time, many for a very short time. They invented ideas about Hitler. In part, very interesting things. Totally fantastic, interesting, complicated things. Things far above the ordinary level. I found that grotesque. Today I’d say they were trapped by their own ideas. That is what happened. (30:04-34:26)
When Commentary is Simply Part of the Game
Simply put, Arendt observed that systemized discourse, such as exists among academics, was often use to legitimize the unconscionable. Any reader who’s spent time in academia will understand the intellectual culture she’s discussing, too, because the social-status game in universities is often intrinsic to one’s survival. In contrast, she noted that less systemized thinkers did not use speech in the same way to excuse the reprehensible. However, Arendt was also speaking in 1964, well before the systemization of general opinion made possible by the internet. Now, absolutely, other systemized discourses exist: in mainstream digital media, in social media, and even in conversation channels like Patheos, where armchair commentators (myself included) offer hot takes on current events in line with pre-established subject-positioning.
And so perhaps the divide in- and outside of academia is not nearly as neat as it once was.
I, for instance, am on the “Nonreligious” channel. I am “Another White Atheist in Colombia”: a whole word salad of subject-position identifiers. As my first post here also attests to, I write on “secular humanism” and “secular storytelling” and the dangers of “binary thinking”–all ideas readers can expect to find in my essays. Thus, you read less to discover my subject-position, and more in hopes of seeing what that pre-set subject-position can contribute to a given discourse. And once you’ve finished reading this piece (thank you, by the way!), you’ll then flip to another article, with its own subject-positions–and another, and another. Why? To give yourself a sense of balance and depth in relation to the latest social issues.
Well, that’s just being fair and equitable, right?
And sure, on the surface, this might seem like a judicious use of time. How else can we arrive at sound conclusions for intricate issues, except by reading all the available data?
Maybe this is a sound path, for some; for those who have not yet ascertained their own sense of where to stand on an issue, or what to do about it. But for those who argue to win in lieu of arguing to learn? Well, sometimes systemized discourse simply allows those with less humanistic subject-positions to find whole tribes of likeminded thinkers, refine their vocabularies of hate, and mobilize in ways with socially destructive consequences. No wonder, then, that a growing body of experts suggests that online media tools (like Reddit, Facebook, and WhatsApp) might be undermining more than improving democracy and meaningful debate. As one recent online meme provocatively suggests: “SOCIAL MEDIA MADE Y’ALL COMFORTABLE WITH DISRESPECTING PEOPLE AND NOT GETTING PUNCHED IN THE MOUTH FOR IT.”
…And boy, am I tempted sometimes to believe that meme. To believe that all this viciousness, all this nastiness, all this anti-humanistic brutality is the fault of social media: a failure of our digital technologies to achieve their greatest potential.
But then I remember Arendt, and other pre-internet thinkers observing the same tendencies in their cultures. And then I realize that one grievously overlooked part of recent comparisons between rising fascistic rhetoric now and in the 1930s is that Hitler’s Germany had no internet and did not need it.
What must we conclude, though, if we incorporate this difficult fact into our assessment of contemporary problems with democracy and discourse? Simply this: that social media is both the medium of contemporary intolerance and a red herring.
Meanwhile, the danger we face is far more fundamental to human discourse.
The danger is in treating social commentary–in any medium and any genre–as play.
But What’s the Alternative?
Arendt argues that when attacked as a Jew, one must respond as a Jew–not evasively, and not in the abstract. Some misread this as a critique of universalist response, instead of as a challenge in constancy. When we comment, when we argue, we must never run from what is unchanging in our characters. Arendt was a Jew. And I am a humanist.
As such, what I say, how I write, and what I react to, should always have that personally abiding truth at its core. One should be able to read my comments on any specific affront to humanism, and see in that commentary an indictment of all other affronts to its practice.
And if one cannot discern that unifying refrain in any singular post–if one requires from me a post arguing specifically against a given incident in order to understand my fundamental position, then I have failed to rise above the “spin”. I have embroiled myself in a game of competing points of view over a localized events in human history.
Okay, fine. So we won’t always succeed at this clarity and unity of vision. We are human; we waver. (Or maybe you don’t–but I do.) Still, as an aspiration, I propose no less for all of you–as readers, as writers, as global citizens, and as regional actors:
Aspire to consistency.
Aspire to your personal, abiding truths.
Because the deadly game of political “spin” relies on this, and nothing more: on our behaving as if any given news cycle is unique. As if a distinct brand of panic and horror must be dredged up to confront each and every one of society’s transgressions.
No wonder, then, that we grow fatigued when urged to respond to our thousandth mass shooting. Or instance of police brutality. Or report of extreme domestic violence or child abuse. Or genocide. We know these are not novel events. And as such, we know that their solutions rarely require genuine innovation. Yet still we behave as though one more article, one more “take” might make all the difference.
No, this essay is not an appeal to defeatism. I am not arguing against making our voices heard, or listening to others, or signal-boosting the best among them. We can make an individual difference, and as such, we have a moral responsibility to articulate and act against the unconscionable.
Nevertheless, in a culture resilient enough to render even hard facts into communities of dissonant commentary… a culture that maybe always has done this, and always will… we who desire real change need to think beyond the most immediate episode of horror, and how best to write it up for community consumption.
We need to give up our addiction to “spin” and seek out what is constant about our dearest causes–and thus, what is in constant need of direct action as well.